To answer the question: because it will benefit all Australians. UD features are easy to implement, and largely cost neutral, but the housing industry is fighting for the status quo. The two Royal Commissions related to aged care and disability care found that inaccessible housing prevented people from remaining at home and living independently. That’s why we need UD features in housing. However, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions in this space.
The Building Better Homes campaign calls for mandating universally designed features in all new homes. It’s also about creating resilient, flexible and sustainable housing. These features will increase general amenity and allow people to age in place. For people with a disability, it will allow them to live independently.
It has to be regulated across the housing building system so that the process stays efficient. There are too many stakeholders to consider in one-off exceptions.
Of course, most people resist change. However, resistance is sometimes founded on misinformation and myths that get perpetuated. Opinions and anecdotes get confused with evidence.
What is so difficult about including universal design features in all new housing? Is it cost or is it technical difficulty? The answer to both is, no. Perhaps this is more about a regulation ideology. The Housing Industry Association (HIA) has a policy statement that says as much. But do they have a case to continue that position for universal design in housing?
In 2006 when the HIA policy was written (and ratified again in 2018) we hadn’t signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We didn’t have a National Disability Strategy or Livable Housing Design Guidelineseither. But other businesses are recognising their ethical obligations for equity and inclusion and that inclusion has a strong business case. And here is the difference – the housing industry is a fragmented system that relies on regulation to hold all the parts together to guarantee consistency and certainty. Consequently, nothing will change without regulation.
So, should we have regulation for all new homes to have universal design features? To answer this question the Australian Building Codes Board commissioned a cost benefit analysis.It concluded that costs outweighed benefits. Even if it did cost more, is this a reason to continue building homes as if we are never going to grow old?
In responding to the cost benefit analysis, two camps emerged. The community and academic sectors say the cost benefit analysis was skewed in favour of costs. Consequently the cost argument doesn’t hold. The housing industry continues to prosecute a cost argument as a basis for the status quo to remain.
April 2021 update: The Building Ministers’ Meeting agreed to mandate Silver level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines in the National Construction Code.
Key submissions to the ABCB
You can check out some of the submissions to the Australian Building Codes Board:
Property Council of Australia supports information and education initiatives for consumers. “If the additional costs laid out in this submission were estimated and included, this would reinforce the negative cost/benefit ratio outlined in the RIS.”
CUDA supports Gold level of Livable Housing Design Guidelines and questions whether a cost benefit analysis was the right approach to answer the object of the project, “To ensure that new housing is designed to meet the needs of the community, including older Australians and others with mobility limitations.
Editor’s note: The HIA’s policy statement focuses on wheelchair users and this is common in the industry. They argue, “The overwhelming majority of private homes will not be used, now or in the future, by people requiring wheel chairs [sic]”. This statement also ignores the human right to visit your friends and family.
Time has come for the housing industry to catch up with the rest of society. Inclusion and diversity are now recognised as Australian values. Discrimination still exists of course, but many sectors, business and government, are striving to do better. That means designing products and services to embrace population diversity. However, the housing industry continues to resist change. They say it will substantially increase the cost of building a home. But how much is “substantially”.
One of the reasons the housing industry says it will cost more is because level entry is difficult to achieve on a steep slope. This can be true, but that is no reason for no change at all. Exceptions would be made for one-off situations. Besides, mass market housing in a greenfield site is rarely on a steep slope – these are not favoured by developers. That’s because it cuts down on building efficiency. But any excavation needed benefits builders too.
Two eminent economists responded to the call to comment on the draft changes and have concluded that benefits outweigh the costs. Dense reading but the document challenges the ABCB analysis at every point. They also conclude that Gold level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines are not only beneficial to the community but they offer the best value overall.
Australia Cannot Afford NOT to Build Accessible Homes, gives an overview of why we must mandate universal design features now. We’ve had ten years for Livable Housing Australia to show that it can do this voluntarily. It has failed. It’s time for them to come good.
NSW Government wants to set a 20 year vision for housing. The strategy covers housing supply, diversity, affordability and resilience. Housing for seniors and people with disability is listed as a separate category. It mentions national policies such as taxation, migration, financial regulation, and the NDIS. Nevertheless, it lacks reference to the National Disability Strategy, the Livable Housing Design Guidelines, and the current consultation Regulation Impact Statement for accessible housing. The strategy implies that the NDIS and Specialist Disability Accommodation will solve the problem.
The proposed vision is:
“Housing that supports security, comfort and choice for all people at all stages of their lives, achieved through supply that meets the demand for diverse, affordable and resilient housing and responds to environmental, cultural, social and economic contexts.”
The document includes a set of discussion questions that can help people with their responses. There is also a Fact Bookwith the data used to form the draft strategy. It includes data on households with a person with disability on page 25.
Do homes really have to be larger to incorporate universal design features? Unlikely saysKay Saville-Smith, a housing researcher from New Zealand. In her keynote address at the UD Conference in 2014 she explained why. Her presentation discussed the “size fraud” and the mistaken idea that homes need to be larger and therefore more expensive. She also referred to the “blame game” where nothing changes because no-one takes the first step. Below is an excerpt from the full transcript of her presentation, Making Universal Design a Reality – Confronting Affordability.
“Builders like to talk about cost per square metre so the larger the living space, the cheaper the perceived cost. Although the floor space need not expand to bring in UD features, it is believed that you do. So people say they won’t pay for that – or more to the point the builders say that”.
She goes on to say, “…there are still the two old barriers to renovating and building homes with universal design and indeed the streetscape, and those two things are twofold. One is what I’ve talked about in the past as the vicious cycle of blame that goes on in the building industry, which is no-one wants to change to do anything because the other person hasn’t asked them to do it. Investors don’t want universal design, so I the builder can’t build that, but if investors want it, sure I will build it. Investors will say I can’t build it because the builder won’t come in at the right cost, and both of them blame the architect, of course, because the architect is off site at that point. So that is one issue. The other issue is that we have the “innovation chasm” where we have solutions but getting them taken up and getting to a tipping point where it’s an expectation of what you get out of the housing market, is a big jump and typically you need about 30% or so of the market to be taking that kind of innovation challenge rather than taking the opportunity to be an early adopter. 30% is a big jump…”
Three academic articles come together for an intellectual tussle on housing theory and policy. David Clapham claims that there is a divide between researchers who focus on policy and those who focus on theory, and he asks where theory for housing research should come from and what it would look like. Hannu Ruonavaara, poses four positions about housing related theory: Is it possible to have one theory for all housing related research?; is it desirable to have one?; should we scrutinise housing as a special activity and experience?; and can we construct a theory about the relationships between the housing system and features of society? Manuel Aalbers, who in his article, asks What kind of theory for what kind of housing research? responds to both academics. He discusses the pros and cons of their arguments. The point about housing research being largely for the audience of other housing researchers is well made. He believes it is more important to demonstrate the relevance of housing research to other social scientists. More importantly it needs to influence policy. Not light reading, but fascinating if you are a housing researcher or interested in housing policy.
From the US another article that supports universal design in housing. To give context to the current challenges, it covers the history of housing from the Great Depression through to the current day. It poses the same arguments for (non) cost of universal design, and the imperatives for it. An interesting point is that there are now more Millennials than Boomers in the US and they will be the future drivers of the housing market. The article concludes that with declining home ownership rates, “Two solutions on the supply side are Universal Design and Accessory Dwelling Units, neither of which are currently supported by public policies. To increase wealth building and economic mobility in the short, middle, and distant future, local, regional, state, and national policy makers may want to focus on these and other innovative strategies.” Graphs help with explanations of statistics.
The article is on page 24 of the Realtor University publication, The Journal of The Center for Real Estate Studies. The article is titled, Past, Current and Future Housing Challenges in the United States. There are four other articles that might be of interest, rent growth, millennial home ownership, manufactured homes, and real estate investment. The text is not easy to read and is in two column format.